Tuesday, September 26, 2023

End of an Era: My resignation from CRKN

I have written about my resignation on social media, but since I’ve been asked what happened by people not on the socials I am posting here.

I am also writing to encourage all employers to become more aware of and accepting of Autism and other neurotypes. Most workplaces have some neurodivergent employees even if the employer hasn’t been made explicitly aware. Autism Awareness and Autism Acceptance is critical in order to help resolve the fact that there is a huge under-employment problem for Autistic people.

(Long form is on the podcast My Friend Autism: Fired For Being Autistic - How to STOP it )

The resignation

On May 17’th I was asked to go on “Sick Leave” in a meeting with my manager and CRKN’s CEO. On September 6 I sent in my formal resignation as my last day of “sick leave” was September 7’th.

In the view of management, my going on sick leave and resigning were choices I made. In my mind I was not given a choice, as continuing in what I considered an unhealthy work environment was never a valid “choice”.

That May meeting was the worst example of what I had been experiencing at CRKN for some time: a meeting was set up to discuss something I had communicated that was misunderstood, and CRKN management had a desire to reprimand me rather than discuss what was said and why it was said.

There were two general themes I had been dealing with:

  • My disclosure of my Autism was not being taken seriously, and I was regularly reprimanded for things which are well known miscommunication patterns between Autistic and Allistic (non-autistic) people.
  • The skills and experience I had gained at Canadiana and CRKN were being dismissed because “job titles” were being declared as exclusive jurisdiction. There were conversations that needed to happen to deal with confusion generated by different understandings of library technology, but any attempt to have a conversation with management was misinterpreted as if it was an insult toward some individual.

Autism Acceptance

(Video: Why everything you know about autism is wrong | Jac den Houting | TEDxMacquarieUniversity)

In 2018 I turned 50 and my employer flipped from Canadiana.org on March 31’st to CRKN on April 1st. When I went to work on Tuesday I was sitting at the identical desk and was in theory going to be continuing my work.

(See also: History of Canadiana)

A few days later I learned that my mother only had a few more months to live. I spent quite a bit of time out of Ottawa helping my mother until she died in August.

I had become closer to my mother over the summer than I had been for years, and that process and her death made me start to see a psychotherapist. After seeing me for several months, in the spring of 2019 we had a conversation: had I considered I was Autistic, and did I want to get a formal diagnosis?

Friends had been suggesting I consider this since the early 2000’s when it became known that many in the High Tech sector were Autistic. I didn’t consider it because I had internalized the pathologizing of Autism and didn’t think I had any “disorder”. It was, after all, called Autism Spectrum Disorder by the medical community who I thought of as the experts. I had internalized some of the common misconceptions about Autism as well as misconceptions about what a spectrum was (think about radio waves, microwaves and visible light all being on the Electromagnetic spectrum – never think of a single line from 0 to extreme)

I started to take the possibility more seriously as 2019 progressed. As I read more about Autism I saw some similarities, but still had many doubts. For instance, I doubted that I had an “Autistic Mask”. Ya, right – me pretending to be someone else or hiding my true self? I’m a terrible actor, and am told I'm very unfiltered.

In the summer of 2022 I contracted Lyme Disease. I received the correct antibiotics in September, and the rash went away. Unfortunately, some other symptoms appeared: fatigue and quite random joint pains.

As the fall proceeded, I started to notice a difference in my communication style and understanding of the communications styles of others. I had become much more direct, and found it harder to understand why people were ignoring facts in discussions. I then turned back to thinking about Autism and – well – it started to seem clear to me that the fatigue was making it impossible to mask. It was the absence of the mask that made me aware that it previously existed.

I tried to ask CRKN management for what I would need while I was dealing with Lyme Disease:

  • Flexible hours, as I may need to nap during the day : Granted
    • I was also already at 80% contract, and had been for many years.
  • Flexible work location to handle naps, pain, etc : Granted
    • I was already working mostly from home, with very infrequent meetings.
  • Understanding about a lack of energy to Autistic Mask : Denied
    • This was misrepresented by CRKN management.

It doesn't matter how thisk the mask, we will never be neurotypical. We will only ever be burned out Neurodivergents.

Complicated social interactions relating to chain of command, hierarchy, job descriptions and jurisdictions only grew in spring 2023. What I considered illogical/impossible demands were being made, and I was being told I was being insubordinate if I asked why.

It generates considerable stress for me to be told I must perform silent obedience to a hierarchy, and this is what specific members of the management team were regularly demanding.

I was given conflicting instructions that it was mandatory that I collaborate with specific coworkers, while simultaneously told I was not allowed to communicate with them. I was being told to vacate someone else's “lane”, while simultaneously asked to enter that lane to write documentation that should have been written by the person holding that position. I made an attempt to hold out an olive branch to improve communications, but that was also misinterpreted and led to the horrible May meeting.

In that May meeting and in the notes from the meeting I was being told that I was "acutely unwell" by a management team that to me had clearly not read the basics of what Autism is.

This unhealthy management style of reprimand first, never bother asking questions, and demand silent obedience to hierarchy pushed me over the edge. I fell into full-on Autistic Burnout after being sent home, and am still in the process of recovering.

(Video: Dr. Service explains autistic burnout, how to stop it, how to recover, and how to prevent it.)

I experienced things in May which I had only read about, and really wish had stayed as theories and not lived experiences. It did, however, remove any remaining doubt I had that I am Autistic.

Over the summer I tried to explain my perspective of what had happened, but CRKN management suggested they wanted to continue the old conversation when I returned. None of the offensive accusations from May were rescinded.

Learning about Autism is something that the management team could have done on their own. I do not feel it is appropriate to require me to be involved in their learning the basics about Autism and other neurotypes. I have the benefit of having anti-racism and anti-colonialism as “special interests” in recent years, and have learned how those within dominant demographics always expect those with “othered” demographics to do the majority of the work towards acceptance of diversity.

I am currently at Part 2 (surveys and other forms filled out, and now waiting for the interview) of an Autism Assessment. I wish I had taken the suggestion to do an assessment seriously back in 2019, but hindsight is always 20/20.

My own learning about Autism has helped me understand the previously indecipherable communications problems I was having at CRKN. The following quote from an article titled “Your Autistic Loved one is not hurting your feelings out of malice” summarizes most interactions with at least one member of CRKN’s management team. What this person did and said made no sense to me, but I came to recognize that person didn’t understand (and didn’t spend time to learn about) my Autistic Dialect.

I think this might be why when an autistic person says or does something that offends a neurotypical (non-autistic) person that many NT people will verbally strike out right away instead of attempting to understand the intention of the autistic person because they think the intention is a foregone conclusion.

My Skills and Experience

I am very thankful for the diversity of experiences I have had in my career. I have done technology work ranging from hardware repair, building networks, security audits, back-end software development (primarily), and even to consulting on business models and software licensing. I’ve been paid to write research for government departments on copyright and patent policy.

When I started at Canadiana.org in 2011, it was for a 6 month contract starting in January to fill in for the Systems Administrator who was on paternity leave. That summer there was a posting at Canadiana for a software developer, so the systems administrator I had filled in for and I decided to take half each of the sysadmin and software developer jobs as Canadiana wanted me to stay as well.

For those first few years I primarily did systems administration and only a bit of back-end software development.

In 2014 there were some changes: I was promoted to the title of “Lead Systems Engineer”, William Wueppelmann became the CIO, and Julienne Pascoe was hired as “Lead Metadata Architect”.

While I still had systems related responsibilities, there were other systems administrators for me to delegate to as lead. William spent time doing knowledge transfer of his Library Systems knowledge to Julienne and I, and then Julienne and I worked closely together. While I don’t have formal training or a MLIS, working together with Julienne and William meant that I learned about Library Systems, Metadata Application Profiles (MAPs), and library related data models and encoding standards.

I learned how to develop scripts, tools and workflows for parsing, extending, normalizing and transforming metadata records, and other related operations. Working with Julienne I was the primary developer for Canadiana’s Ingest Automation (the custom OAIS packaging system – learning more about OAIS, METS, BagIt, etc) as well as the Metadata Bus (learning about MARC, Dublin Core, AltoXML and custom schemas such as CMR, IssueInfo and TxtMap). I was actively learning from the broader community about Linked Open Data, Bibframe, IIIF and many other relevant emerging technologies in the library and archival technology spaces.

I am very grateful for William and Jullienne for all the knowledge transfer they offered me, allowing me to participate actively in library technology.

Julienne decided not to be part of the merger with CRKN, so left her position in fall 2017. CRKN posted a position to replace Julienne in 2018.

Only in spring 2023 did I read what turns out to be a similar looking (but not identical) position posted in 2019. It hadn't occurred to me that the two positions were worded similarly. The 2019 posting was filled, but the person hired was assigned duties by their manager that more closely related to the Cataloguing Coordinator/Manager that Canadiana had in the past. This generated considerable conflict between the skills/experience I had acquired and priorities I was assigned, and the "jurisdiction" and often conflicting priorities this person was assigned.

I believe we were set up to fail by the management team. I suspect that person felt as uncomfortable with the failed communication as I did.

I want to say this here as much as I tried to repeat at work: These are two different jobs with two different skill sets which combined is far more than any single person could reasonably be expected to do. I am not and was not critical of the individual who was given one job title and assigned different work by their manager. I was trying to draw attention to a specific resourcing problem, and only met with critique of my alleged “tone of voice” (back to the lack of understanding by management about what Autism is).

The manager (not mine) who had hired this person was focused on protecting exclusive jurisdiction they felt should be within their department, and not interested in discussing or solving resourcing problems. That manager focused on new projects, regularly generating resource allocation conflicts for those of us working on pre-existing (and previously approved by committees, etc) infrastructure projects that should have been given a priority.

As one example, the Archivematica Adoption project we had started planning at Canadiana in 2017 was first agreed to by CRKN in the summer of 2018 soon after the merger, and confirmed again formally in 2019. There was possibly a six month project, but resource allocation issues primarily (but not exclusively) caused by that manager meant this project had barely started by the time I left in May 2023.

This manager was demanding I vacate the jurisdiction they felt belonged to the person they hired. With me gone there would be nobody doing the Metadata Application Profile, data model or (meta)data transformation work I had previously been doing with Julienne and had been filling in for since Julienne left. This manager had for years been blocking knowledge transfer relating to the usage of Canadiana tools and its record databases (which I had been primarily author for, and which the cataloging team wasn’t using correctly). This manager kept suggesting that even mentioning any knowledge transfer was required was somehow condescending.

Given CRKN was still using custom software, it wasn’t possible for any new staff person to learn these details from anyone other than the staff that created and managed the software stack. It isn’t remotely condescending to be aware that no individual could already have known this custom information.

This confusion about library technology and its relation to cataloging meant it was nearly impossible for me to get any of my own work done. Along with a disregard for anything communicated using an Autistic Dialect, I was constantly targeted with odd accusations that I was being rude or condescending to individuals when I was simply trying to get productive work done in a management environment that was dismissing my experience.

(Video: The Autistic dialect | Madeline Narkinsky | TEDxVCU)

While the title listed for me on the website was still "Lead Systems Engineer", I was also being asked to step away from Systems Administration.  It was unclear what work CRKN wanted me to be engaged in as my primary areas of exptertise were being allocated as the exclusive jurisdiction of other people in an environment that demanded obedience to the org chart, chain of command, and subjectively declared job titles.